Confession: This book falls outside my comfort zone. It does not have monsters or time travel or time traveling monsters. There were a couple reasons I picked it up. 1. Megan and I have the same agent (the tenacious Julie Barer). And 2. That goddamn cover. Geez that’s a great cover. So I read the first short story (this is a collection) with not a little trepidation. But it was the last line of that story (Housewifely Arts, which was included in The Best American Short Stories) that forever made me a fan of Megan Mayhew Bergman‘s writing: “What maniacs we are — sick with love, all of us.”
There are several themes explored in this collection of stories. Love sickness, that’s one. Humanity’s place in nature, that’s another. Also: Survivalism; Responsibility; That unknowable thing that makes a place a home. I kept the book on my bedside table, reading it slow, a story at a time, before bed. I fell asleep to lovely writing, the best way to go out, for something like a month.
It strikes me (and I’m guessing better critics saw this) that Mayhew Bergman is a woman’s answer to Jonathan Franzen– something the literary world has been searching for in response to his alleged machoism. She and Franzen explore the same themes and, at times, journey down the same trails. For instance, the title story is about a young woman who lives on a swamp with her father, who believes an extinct bird might live nearby. One day, an older man arrives, and pays them to help him do some bird-watching in the swamp. I actually pictured Franzen in this role, looking for his goddamn warbler, Mayhew Bergman as the young woman.
Like Franzen, her writing is about the nuances of human interaction and how silly it all is in the face of Nature. Like Franzen, there is much subtext here. But what makes Mayhew Bergman’s writing different is her sense of dignity and grace in place of derision. There is hope here.
Besides the two I’ve already mentioned, my favorites in this bunch are the two survivalist stories: Yesterday’s Whales (about a clueless prep-school grad who wants the human race to die out… and his response to his wife’s pregnancy) and Artificial Heart (set in the year 2050, about a young woman who must take care of her fisherman father, whose mechanical heart won’t stop beating, even after all the fish in the sea have died).
Pick up a copy, put it by your bed, and enjoy at your leisure.